Scotland’s Covid recovery secretary John Swinney has been criticised for sharing “fake news” online about the level of protection face masks provide on the day restrictions are eased to level zero across the country.
The deputy first minister tweeted a badly cropped infographic used in a well-known meme with claims about mask protection shortly before 10am on Monday. Its figures have been strongly disputed by international fact checking websites.
The image claims there is no risk of transmitting the deadly virus as long as you wear a mask and stand six feet apart. It makes several other claims about the percentage risk from wearing or not wearing a face mask.
Mr Swinney tweeted the infographic with the caption: “As we move to Level 0 in Scotland – marking good progress on our careful process of relaxing restrictions – this is a helpful graphic showing why we must use face coverings and keep our distance.”
As we move to Level 0 in Scotland – marking good progress on our careful process of relaxing restrictions – this is a helpful graphic showing why we must use face coverings and keep our distance. #staysafe pic.twitter.com/AcyrEBmVgb
— John Swinney (@JohnSwinney) July 19, 2021
The same “fakes news” was also shared by former SNP government minister Roseanna Cunningham and the leader of Edinburgh Council, SNP councillor Adam McVey, all within around an hour of each other.
The claims shared in the image do not appear to be supported by evidence and the original source of the graphic is unclear.
Wear a mask! pic.twitter.com/AVMm6R3MFT
— Roseanna Cunningham 🏴🇪🇺🕷🖖 (@strathearnrose) July 19, 2021
The illustration has been widely shared on social media with different figures and in multiple languages including Catalan, French, Burmese and Spanish, but has been debunked by fact checking services such as Reuters and the Danish website TjekDet.
The infographic has also been adopted as a popular meme with parody versions showing one of the figures in the final row stating an unpopular opinion and making the listener walk away, thus leading to “0% risk of transmission.”
According to the website Know Your Meme, the graphic shared by Mr Swinney first appeared on the image sharing site imgur on July 18, 2020. It linked to a study in the Lancet as its source for the figures but these are not supported by the study in any way.
The report actually states on facemasks and physical distancing: “However, none of these interventions afforded complete protection from infection, and their optimum role might need risk assessment and several contextual considerations. No randomised trials were identified for these interventions in COVID-19, SARS, or MERS.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Reuters last year that it “cannot confirm the accuracy of the numbers reflected in this image”.
Scotland’s national clinical director, Jason Leitch, has also previously warned that face coverings “are an important element of risk reduction but they do not make you invincible”.
Scottish Conservative health spokeswoman Annie Wells said: “John Swinney should delete this misleading graphic.
“It wrongly sends a message that there is no risk from Covid in certain circumstances and makes several claims that appear to be unfounded.
“This looks unnecessarily reckless coming from a senior SNP government minister.
“We’ve all got a duty to call out fake news and this misleading post blurs the well-intentioned message he seems to be trying to send that wearing masks can reduce the spread of the virus.
“The Covid recovery secretary needs to wise up and be more careful when sending public health messages, especially on the day that restrictions are eased across Scotland.”
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “It is absolutely essential that public health advice shared by the government is clear, consistent and accurate.
“As the cabinet secretary for Covid recovery, the least we could expect from John Swinney is to avoid sharing fake news. This is especially true of content minimising the risk of spreading Covid, particularly if there isn’t a scientific basis for the claim.”
Mr Swinney did not respond to questions put to him by us about whether it is appropriate for the government minister in charge of Covid recovery to post unverified information on social media without sources.
He would also not say whether he now accepts that the information he shared is false.
Instead, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The science – and the [deputy first minister’s] message – is clear: masks and physical distancing help prevent transmission of Covid-19, and it is important people do not undermine public health messaging by suggesting otherwise.”